Ari Aster is a fascinating filmmaker. His debut was the haunting horror/thriller Hereditary, which explored the terrors of what we might be passing down from generation to generation. Then, he made Midsommar, a deeply unsettling drama about a couple in a toxic relationship visiting a creepy village. They were both strange, disturbing, darkly humorous and extremely effective at what they did. Now comes his third movie, Beau is Afraid. It is a lot.
Weird, confusing, off-putting, funny, compelling, tense, filmmaking as therapy session; all of this can be accurately used to describe Beau is Afraid. Similar to Aster’s previous efforts, this is concerned with theme more than plot. In this case, the way guilt, anxiety and shame from our childhood can paralyze us. However, his other two movies had clear, linear plots. Beau does not.
Most of its 174-minute running time (not including the end credits) consists of the title character wandering through a surrealistic nightmare, encountering odd people and situations, usually while muttering “I’m sorry.” As the audience, we are left to wonder what is real, how these vignettes are meant to connect with each other and what exactly Aster is attempting to say. Sometimes, I felt like I got it. Sometimes, I was puzzled. Yet I was always intrigued. If this is his least successful project thus far, it is also definitely his most ambitious. I admire big swings, so I liked Beau.
This is generally when I would briefly tease the plot, but that is pretty difficult here. Mainly because this really needs to be experienced. A summation could not possibly do it justice. I will just say it is about a man named Beau whose fear keeps him stuck, until a series of upsetting events forces him to journey into the dangers of the world.
If, as it is said, acting is reacting, then Joaquin Phoenix does a heck of a lot of acting as Beau. Phoenix uses a meek voice and constantly looks like he wishes he would disappear into thin air. Whenever something goes wrong (which it frequently does), his immediate instinct is to apologize. Phoenix plays him as a scared ten-year-old in a forty-eight-year-old’s body. He does as well as can be done with a role that is intentionally more concept than person.
The sets, from his violent neighborhood and run-down apartment building to a seemingly “normal” family home, are a perfect mixture of realistic and dreamlike. The many shots of someone in the background staring at Beau are horrific and very familiar. Who of us hasn’t felt like we’re being stared at when we’re only trying to figure out what is happening? There is a scene featuring Zoe Lister-Jones as Beau’s emotionally abusive mother telling teenage Beau a story that will scar him for life, that is shot in close-up with Lister-Jones’ face either lost to darkness or lit with a reddish tint. This allows us to see it in a way that suggests a dive into Beau’s worst fears.
This is all to say that Aster’s techniques work more often than not. He tries a lot of stuff here (including a beautiful stop-motion animation sequence). I think of the narrative (such as it is) of Beau is Afraid as being broken up into four parts. The first part absolutely worked for me. The second part mostly did. I started to slip a bit by the end of the third part. The fourth part is absurd, metaphorical, bizarre, thought-provoking and exhausting. Trimming it may have made his point sharper and eliminated some distractions. Still, that material is there for a reason. Perhaps a second viewing will help me fit what I understood with what I couldn’t quite get a grasp on, now that I know the destination. Or perhaps it would just make me feel even more adrift.
This is not an easy watch, for so many reasons. Casual filmgoers beware! But I certainly recommend it for fans of Ari Aster’s filmography. He has a style (narrative, thematic and directorial) that is captivating, even when the excess becomes overwhelming.
3½ out of 5
Joaquin Phoenix as Beau Wasserman
Zoe Lister-Jones as Young Mona
Amy Ryan as Grace
Nathan Lane as Roger
Kylie Rogers as Toni
Armen Nahapetian as Teen Beau
Written and Directed by Ari Aster